By: Rich Flanagan
Photos: Donna Eckert & Zamani Feelings
PHILADELPHIA –Diamond Johnson’s career at Neumann-Goretti will be remembered forever.
The ridiculous scoring outputs and the individual accolades are as countless as the premiere players that Johnson’s coach, Andrea Peterson, has developed and molded in her time with the Saints.
But what stands out about Johnson above all the others?
“She’s the top kid that has come out of Neumann-Goretti,” Peterson said. “Diamond has officially set the bar for players who have come through Neumann-Goretti and I’ve had tremendous student-athletes come through here but she’s that kid who really helps to put the school on her back. She’s the heart of the city.”
For a little over two seasons at the South Philadelphia high school, she was the model of consistency and the Saints went as she did. Prior to arriving at Neumann-Goretti, Johnson was sort of a diamond in the rough at Phoebus High (Va.).
While she wasn’t the leader that she would evolve into, she let her game do the talking. She avg. 29.6 points per game as a freshman.
How did she improve from avg. 30 points a night in her first season? She posted a 51-point performance versus Hampton during her sophomore campaign and surpassed 1,000 career points in the process. The following game, she poured in 42 of Phoebus’ 56 points.
Neuman-Goretti's Diamond Johnson, a two-time Catholic League MVP, PA 3A player of the year and PA Gatorade player of the year, is taking her talents to Rutgers - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
Johnson has been a point guard from day one, but the scoring ability comes so naturally to her that she’s able to intertwine it with a knack for running the floor and finding the open teammate.
She always saw it as the perfect combination.
“That’s a coach’s dream,” Johnson said. “Normally, point guards only have one side to them: they either score or they’re playmakers. It’s nice to have both and it was pretty easy to learn other stuff because playmaking is harder to teach.”
Peterson, who has coached players such as Jabria Ingram (University of Hartford), Tatiana Jones (Gulf Coast State College), Kiara Koger, Daijah Parmley, Nia Jordan (University of New Orleans) and Kamiah Smalls, who became the first Neumann-Goretti player to be taken in the WNBA or NBA draft when she was selected by the Indiana Fever with the 28th pick in April, knew she had the capability to be a multifaceted point guard by the way she practiced.
“What high school kid gets up every day at 5 a.m. to get shots up, goes to school then goes to a two-hour practice and finally goes home to shower and does another workout before she goes to bed,” Peterson said. “That’s a pro routine in high school and she did it every day. I think what made Diamond special is that kids are afraid to step outside of their comfort zone when it comes to sports and she wasn’t afraid to do that. She would perfect things and then move onto the next one.”
She was avg. 33.1 ppg in early February 2018 when her mother made the decision to have her move up north and return to Philadelphia, where her family was originally from. The circumstances had nothing to do with basketball, as Johnson’s father was very sick and the family felt it was necessary for her to be with him. She was enrolled in the school as the Saints were preparing for the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs and they were awaiting a decision from the PIAA on whether or not she was going to be eligible to play.
Finally, a decision was made just before the start of the PIAA Class 3A Tournament and, as if the Saints needed another option to pair alongside Ingram, Koger, Jones and Jordan, Johnson immediately gelled with that core group.
“I adapted really quickly,” Johnson said. “They welcomed me with open arms. No one was jealous or anything with me coming in and taking some people’s time away. I adapted quickly because it was my style of play and I was able to come in and do what I do.”
Neumann-Goretti cruised through the state tournament, winning all five contests by an avg. of 28.8 points and the run culminated with a 63-46 victory over Bishop Canevin. Johnson had 14 points, six rebounds, five assists, and three steals in the title game, which was the Saints fourth straight state crown at the time.
Peterson knows some may look at that state title with skepticism but Johnson’s induction into Neumann-Goretti was bigger than basketball. It was family that drove the decision and it will always be family that mattered most to Johnson.
“Adding her under a circumstance like with her dad was tough,” Peterson said. “She has a heart of gold and wants to make everyone around her better. She didn’t come to our program purely for basketball. She came because of her father. Forget the basketball aspect. We’re very family-oriented at Neumann-Goretti and she fit perfectly into that. That’s what made it more special for her to be added to that run.”
Johnson had to forgo filling up the stat sheet during that state title run but found her spots. Heading into her junior season, the 5-foot-5 floor general was the unquestioned leader and that brought about a change in her game.
“When I first got there, I wasn’t the leader or the point guard so I had to take on that role,” Johnson said. “It was definitely a good challenge that I was up for especially since I was one of the oldest in the group. I had to take on that leadership role.”
In a year that was supposed to be marked by success on the court, it was marked by tragedy off of it as her father, James, passed away due to his deteriorating health in December 2018. The main reason she had returned to Philadelphia was taken from her but his presence with her on the court became all the motivation she needed. She avg. 25.8 ppg which included a 54-point barrage vs. Imhotep Charter in the District 12 3A title game.
While the Saints fell to Archbishop Wood in the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals and Dunmore in the PIAA 3A quarterfinals, Johnson brought home league MVP, Pa. All-State Class 3A Player of the Year and finally Pa. Gatorade Player of the Year. She took the momentum from that dominant junior season into the AAU live period by avg. 17.6 points and 4.6 assists for Boo Williams on the Nike EYBL circuit. Her play there garnered a lot of attention and led to the next step of her basketball career.
Peterson credits the jump in Johnson’s recruitment to her attitude and never being ok with the state of her game.
“She worked so hard at what she did and she was never complacent,” Peterson said. “The most special thing is that she played every game like she didn’t have a scholarship. She had that winner’s mentality and she wanted to be the best there is. When she sets her mind to something, she goes and does it. She puts in the work when no one is watching.”
Prior to her senior season, Johnson made the decision to continue her career with C. Vivian Stringer and Rutgers. Stringer has taken the Scarlet Knights to two Final Fours and won 1,000+ games as a head coach.
Her influence appealed to Johnson, who also had offers from NC State, South Carolina, University of Virginia, Boston College and Ohio State along with interest from Notre Dame, Penn, Florida and University of North Carolina.
“I’m looking forward to the playing style and the competition,” Johnson said. “Everything she said was going to be there such as the speed of the game and change of pace to high school is. I’m definitely looking forward to that.”
With her college decision in the books, her focus turned to the court to begin her final season with Neumann-Goretti. A more perfect script for how the beginning of the season should go could not have been written as she erupted for 53 points against Philadelphia Catholic League-rival, Cardinal O’Hara on the one-year anniversary of her father’s death.
It was a game unlike any other she has been a part of in her career and, while “everything was falling into place,” as she put it, its significance will remain with her for the rest of her life.
“He meant everything to me,” Johnson said. “We literally did everything together and I mean that. It was definitely hard losing him but I knew I couldn’t grieve on it for long because I had a team to take care of, too. It was definitely him talking to me during that game.”
She had 38 points and 12 steals in the Saints’ regular-season matchup against West Catholic then added 30 points in the loss to the eventual-champion Burrs in the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals. She churned out a 35-point performance vs. St. Basil Academy in the opening round of the PIAA 3A Tournament before scoring another 35 in her final high school game, another loss to Dunmore. Her final season averages were indicative of how far her progression into a complete player had come: 31 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3.6 steals.
Those numbers led to a second consecutive Philadelphia Catholic League MVP, Pa. All-State Class 3A POY and even more impressively Pa. Gatorade POY. She became the first two-time winner of the award since Cumberland Valley’s Kelly Jekot (Villanova) in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and she was the first PCL player to win the award in consecutive years since O’Hara’s Kristen Clement, who won the award three times (1995-97). Clement scored 2,256 career points, won three league titles with the Lions and played at Tennessee under Pat Summitt, where she was a member of the 1997-98 National Championship team that finished 39-0.
The All-State 3A POY distinction was notable because she became the 6th straight Neumann-Goretti player to claim the award joining Ciani Cryor (2015), Alisha Kebbe (2016), Chyna Nixon (2017) and Ingram (2018). She was accepted to play in the Jordan Brand Classic, but despite being ranked as one of the top five female players in the country she was not chosen to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game. It was a major disappointment but she soon received some momentous news from a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer.
Former Philadelphia 76er and 2000-01 NBA MVP Allen Iverson FaceTimed Johnson after practice one day and invited her to play in the 24K Showcase as part of the Iverson Classic, making her the first woman to be invited to play in a men’s All-American basketball game.
It was a moment that would make any player at Johnson’s age star-struck but she remained as humble as one could be and Peterson noted that is part of who she is.
“She gets a call from A.I. and everyone else is freaking out,” Peterson said. “She was crying a little bit and it was a lot for her to take in but she really is humble about it. You wouldn’t even know all of the accolades she has. I have to brag about them at banquets for her. She won’t talk about any of that unless you do it for her and that’s a great thing about Diamond.”
She finished her career with 2,812 points, putting her atop the Neumann-Goretti all-time scoring list and into rare company locally. Other players who have scored 2,500+ points include Swin Cash, who played at McKeesport Area before playing 15 seasons in the WNBA and is currently the Vice President of Basketball Operations and Team Development or the New Orleans Pelicans, Wendy Davis, who starred at Daniel Boone and UConn where she was a member of Geno Auriemma’s first Final Four team in 1991, and Elena Delle Donne, the two-time WNBA MVP who played at Ursuline Academy (Del.) and led the Washington Mystics to their first title last season. Cash actually won Pa. Gatorade POY in 1997-98 as did former Dobbins standout Dawn Staley (1987-88), who starred at Temple University and recruited Johnson at South Carolina.
Her name will forever be mentioned among players who have gone on to storied careers and she’s only scratching the surface of her own potential. Johnson admits she’s “angry and upset” about not having won a Philadelphia Catholic League or state title during her final two seasons and even feels she “could’ve done more” but she hopes that those shortcomings will pale in comparison to what she meant to the school and community.
“I think I will definitely be remembered for my scoring and also for the work I did with the kids as far as holding clinics and more,” Johnson said. “I was always open to talk with kids, even if they needed a minute to talk. Just being the person I am intertwined with basketball.”
It’s easy to get lost in the career point total and the plethora of awards but Peterson stressed that Johnson’s contributions off the court will be remembered long after her career, which is just getting started, is over.
“The greatest thing about Diamond is what she does off the court and when no one is looking,” Peterson said. “I’ve never seen this girl turn down an autograph. She’s always smiling. She takes losses to heart but she’s always looking for ways to give back to the community. She’s already a household name.”